The adventures of a Fleetwood amateur astronomer

This is how it remained, until a few years ago when my interest was rekindled. A friend’s stepfather worked at a local refuse tip and asked me if I would like to have a telescope he had rescued from a skip. It was a 4½-inch reflector with a grey tube, at the bottom of which was a mirror, with a focusing rack at the top of the tube. It sat on a rather rusted tripod with extendable legs, but after a little cleaning and the application of oil I found the tripod and its mount were useable so after all these years I had at last the kind of equipment I had dreamed about as a child. And for free! For the next few months, I was out every night the skies were clear, learning the procedures and techniques required for astronomy along with a fellow stargazing buff.

It soon became apparent to me that this telescope, although usable, was very worn and so became difficult to use. So I decided to buy something a little better and more recent. For the princely sum of £70 I purchased another 4½-inch reflecting telescope from the cash convertors shop in Blackpool. Finished in shiny gloss paint it came with an assortment of eyepieces and was in almost mint condition. I got stuck into using this new telescope and retired the old silver one. Then I came into possession of two more telescopes both donated by a kind friend who also had an interest in astronomy. The first telescope was another reflector but with a larger 6-inch mirror and the second one was a beautiful refractor with a large 5-inch lens. Using all 3 telescopes I had some amazing views of the moon and the planets such as Jupiter (Wow!), Saturn, Venus and Mars. However, the only deep sky objects (the term given to any galaxy, star cluster or nebula in the night sky) I had seen where the Orion Nebula and the Pleiades in Taurus both easy to locate. The reason for this paucity of viewed targets was because all three telescopes had to be moved manually around the night sky and most deep sky objects are small and faint, so you must star hop to their locations which is not easy at all with a manually operated telescope mount.

In the early months of 2020, I decided to take the next step in my astronomy education and buy myself something called a goto telescope. These telescopes have computer driven motors in their mounts and can also track an object once it has been located and keep it still within the eyepieces field of view. After a few days of looking at various models I settled on buying a Celestron Nexstar 6SE.

Even with a post-Christmas discount this telescope was still a substantial outlay but has been so worth it. The Nexstar 6SE is a type of telescope called a Schmidt-Cassegrain which utilises the best aspects of both a reflecting and refracting telescope. Like a reflecting telescope it has a mirror at the base of its optical tube but it also has a lens at the top of the tube called a corrector plate.

The corrector plate focuses incoming light down the optical tube onto the mirror. From there it is bounced back up the tube onto a small mirror set into the centre of the corrector plate This small mirror directs the light back down the central axis of the tube to its destination in the aperture where the telescopes eyepieces are positioned for viewing just behind the mirror. This bouncing of the light through a corrector plate and off two mirrors allows my telescope to have a long focal length but a shorter actual physical length. The short stubby shape of the Schmidt Cassegrain telescope is one of its great selling points - they are very compact and portable and generally take up far less room than longer reflectors or refractors but have comparable focal lengths. Pricewise they are more expensive as the corrector plate has to be ground to a precise shape in order to focus the incoming light correctly but Celestron have developed a manufacturing process for the mass production of finely ground corrector plates at an affordable cost.

Another great aspect of buying the Nexstar 6SE was the supplied hand controller. Within it are stored over 40,000 celestial objects ready for viewing with the touch of a button. Also included are extensive catalogues such as the famous Messier catalogue and the New General catalogue as well as lists of named stars, double stars and variable stars. In fact, there are enough goodies stored within its memory to keep any astronomer occupied for years! To use the Nexstar 6SE you first have to input via the hand controller your location on the earths in degrees, minutes and seconds of latitude and longitude. Next you enter the correct time taking into consideration whether it is British Summer Time (BST) or Universal Time (UTC) and your time zone and the date in the American style - month first then day of the month then year. Once this is done then you are ready to use one of the telescope’s many alignment processes. I have only ever used two of them called sky-align and solar-system-align. Sky-align involves slewing the telescope to any 3 bright stars in the night sky and then following the alignment procedure in the supplied instruction manual. I sometimes use solar-system-align if I want to only view the moon or one of the planets - the telescope is slewed to the desired target and the same alignment procedure is used as for sky-align. In all the whole process only takes a matter of minutes and if done with a bit of precision can give excellent results. (new paragraph) As a first goto telescope the Nexstar 6SE has many great advantages. I love the simplicity of its set up and use and on many occasions, this has saved me much time and allows me to get straight into a viewing session with the minimum of fuss. It also means that at the end of a cold night when my fingers are frozen, I can quickly shut it down, dismantle it and put everything back in my car or in the house nice and neatly.

The one disadvantage of the telescope in my opinion is the built-in battery compartment used to power the telescope and its drive system. It requires 8 AA batteries to give a total power supply of 12 volts DC and on the first few times I used the telescope it was literally eating its way through Duracell batteries in a matter of hours. The problem with using the onboard battery compartment is that as they drain and the voltage drops the electronics of the telescope goes haywire and the telescope starts to lose its alignment and does some very odd things. To cure this problem I had to buy an external 12 volt power supply for the telescope, again from Celestron, for about £80 and since using it the telescope has operated like a dream. It is rechargeable and attaches to a leg of the telescopes tripod, but it is a hidden financial outlay that Celestron don’t mention in their advertising blurb.

What can I see with my new goto telescope? Well, I have been lucky to see many galaxies, nebulas, globular clusters and star clusters, but I must give a word of warning; These objects I have seen look nothing like the fancy space pictures you see in newspapers or magazines. Those images have either been taken with the Hubble space telescope, powerful ground-based telescopes with lots of awfully expensive electronics attached or by amateur astronomers who have years of experience and thousands of pounds of top line equipment. On top of this the images have also been enhanced and manipulated using complicated software. When I look through the eyepiece of my telescope, I see deep sky objects in shades of monochrome, they have no colour to the human eye. Galaxies are usually fuzzy blobs, even the mighty Andromeda galaxy, and most nebulas appear as tiny fuzzy stars and a lot of the time you must train your eye to tell them apart from the normal stars around them. Despite this there are plenty of spectacular wonders to see through a telescope - globular clusters such as Messier 13 the Hercules cluster look like balls of jewels and star clusters like the Pleiades at high magnifications are jam packed with bright stars.

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